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Torah Sparks

July 5, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Num. 16:1 - 18:32 (Hertz, p. 639; Etz Hayim, p. 860)
Triennial Cycle II: Num. 16:20 - 17:24 (Hertz, p. 641; Etz Hayim, p. 863)
Haftarah: I Samuel 11:14 - 12:22 (Hertz, p. 649; Etz Hayim, p. 876)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Discussion Theme: The Value and Validity of Debate

"And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 'Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant.' And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Speak to the community and say: Withdraw from about the abodes of Korach, Datan, and Aviram.' Moses rose and went to Datan and Aviram, the elders of Israel following him. He addressed the community, saying, 'Move away from the tents of these wicked men and touch nothing that belongs to them, let you be wiped out for all their sins.' So they withdrew from about the abodes of Korach, Datan, and Aviram." (Numbers 16:20, 21, 23-27)


  1. Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will in the end yield results. And any dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven will in the end not yield results. What is a dispute for the sake of Heaven? This is the sort of dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And what is one that is not for the sake of Heaven? It is the dispute of Korach and all his party. (Avot 5:17) One day Rabbi Yochanan said to Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (in a religious debate): Never con a con-man (a robber is an expert at robbery). So what good did you ever do for me? When I was a robber, people called me, 'my lord' (literally, rabbi) and now people call me 'my lord.' Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said to him: I'll tell you what good I've done for you. I brought you under the wings of the Presence of God. Rabbi Yochanan was offended and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish fell ill. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish died and Rabbi Yochanan was very distressed. The Rabbis said: Who will go and restore Rabbi Yochanan's spirits? Let Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat go because his traditions are well honed. He went and took a seat before him. At every statement that Rabbi Yochanan made, he commented, 'There is a teaching that supports your view.' Rabbi Yochanan said to him: Do you think you are like the son of Lakisha (that you are a good substitute for him)? When I would state something, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish would raise questions against my position on twenty-four grounds, and I would find twenty-four solutions, and it naturally followed that the tradition was broadened, but you say to me merely, 'There is a teaching that supports your view.' Don't I know that what I say is sound? So he went on tearing his clothes and weeping, 'Where are you son of Lakisha, where are you son of Lakisha.' He cried until his mind turned from him. The Rabbis asked mercy for him and he died. (Bava Metziah 84a)
  2. Torah learning takes place only in community beginning with Talmud study, the companion in learning, and ascending upward to the life of the community as a whole. We test our thoughts against the views of others; otherwise we construct a private world, a self-fabricated prison. Second, we compare our way of taking things apart and putting them back together against the ways others do the same work, our ideas against theirs. In the learning community of Israel, we bear responsibility to one another for our views, and we owe one another not only a statement of what we think, but a clear explanation of why we think so. Not only that, but faced with a disagreement about our view, we bear the obligation to give the other reasons why we are right and the other is wrong. All learning involves contention: 'I think,' 'you think,' do not suffice. 'I think because,' 'you are wrong because' - these define the act of learning. Two contradictory positions cannot be right-not in the real world of lucid transactions. Without reason we resort to force, rewriting history by appeal to who controls the state. To the famous philosophical saying, 'I think therefore I am,' we may add, 'I argue, therefore I am Israel.' When you argue you accord to the other a serious hearing for ideas besides your own, and when you take the other seriously, the other person opens up and out to you. Argument not only forms an act of respect but a statement of trust. And community builds upon trust. In the end, we see that Rabbi Yochanan cannot survive in a world in which people agree with everything he says. He dies. And so does a community that abandons the ambition to argue and gives up on the notion that contending ideas form the nourishment of the social order. And so, all alone, do all those who insist on their opinion, without reasoned argument to sustain it. 'Well, anyhow, that's my opinion' forms the sentence of death. Without reason, holy Israel would perish. (Jacob Neusner in "Reason and the Learning Community of Israel, the Holy People")
  3. Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years, Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel disputed. The former said: the law follows me. The latter said: the law follows me. A Divine Voice emerged and said: both these and those are the words of the living God, but the law accords with Beit Hillel. But given that both are the words of the living God, why did Beit Hillel merit for the law to go according to them? It is because those in Beit Hillel were congenial and humble and they would teach their own position and their opponents' position. And not only that, they would teach the words of Beit Shamai before teaching their own position. (Eruvin 13b)
  4. What is the significance of Beit Hillel's moral virtues in granting priority to Hillel's school over Shammai's? Humility is necessary to open them to hear the opponent's views to reach a better rational clarification of the truth which is achieved through discussion. Since the humble ones suspect that they might err, they will double check themselves. Thus humility becomes a cognitively fruitful trait associated with skeptical self-criticism. Another possible explanation is that ethics are more important for social peace. Hillel is a pursuer of peace like Aaron. Deciding in favor of Beit Hillel is less likely to lead to exclusion of the dissenters and the creation of sectarianism. Alternatively, Hillel's humility leads the people to accept their leadership more readily since they are not acting for self-interest or arrogantly promoting their own greater wisdom. Additionally, humility opens one to reality, not only to the ideal, so that law can be modified and society can survive change more easily. Unlike Shammai who chased away the potential convert, Hillel is considerate of human needs that halachah must address, not only of the ideal it demands. Another possibility is that humility towards God means that the decisions will be less influenced by one's desire to be right and more by the desire to please God which is, after all, the purpose of determining the law. Finally, humility is a religious value that may even be more important than the fidelity to the logic of the text. After all, it is service of God and realizing a religious way of life-not merely obeying the rules-that is the goal of Judaism. (Noam Zion based on Avi Sagi's "Eilu v'Eilu")

Sparks for Reflection/Discussion

As we see from the source in Pirkei Avot, Korach's attack on Moses is considered the paradigmatic dispute "not for the sake of Heaven." The latter source, however, does not provide a reason. The sources that follow the one from Avot may suggest some possible answers. Certainly it was not simply that Korach engaged in dispute, for debate is looked upon favorably in our tradition. Rabbi Yochanan, for example, eventually died from despair because he lacked a "chevruta," a partner, to debate him. The Talmud in Kiddushin 30b states that even a parent and child or a teacher and student should debate as vigorously as enemies; in the end, if the debate is over a matter of substance, they will emerge with great affection for one another.

Based on the sources above, including Neusner who states that debate is a mechanism for creating community and Noam Zion who provides reasons why Hillel's position was accepted, what qualities did Korach lack or what rules of debate did he ignore? What made his dispute "not for the sake of Heaven?"

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